NEW YORK — Having dutifully manned the entrance to The Carlyle for more than 50 years, Michael O’Connell is more or less a walking storybook. The gracious Irishman has greeted princes and princesses, presidents and movie stars — and to this day can tell you most of their room numbers. He was one of the first people president Harry Truman saw before embarking on his daily walk, and he snuck Princess Diana in through the back doors. This week, O’Connell, who has a house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and another upstate, retires as captain of the bellmen of the hotel, which is owned by Rosewood Hotels. He patiently, if reluctantly, took time off before his big bash this evening for a diplomatic conversation about what he’ll miss the most.
WWD: When you started in the package room at 18, did you ever think you’d stay here this long?
Michael O’Connell: Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would accomplish so much. What I give to The Carlyle, I get back hundredfold. The guests were a great help to me. They put my kids through college and paid the mortgage on my house.
WWD: With tips?
M.O.: Everything combined. The best thing I got was just before I went overseas [to serve in the Korean War]. There was a couple here; I used to take care of their mail when they went away. I told them I got called by Uncle Sam, and the night before I left they gave me a check for $500. That was a lot of money then. It helped me buy a car when I got back.
WWD: Both Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy were residents here. Who was the better tenant?
M.O.: Well, Jackie stayed here after the assassination, with the children. She stayed in 1812, which was a duplex at the time. They were both beautiful people. Liz Taylor was stunning, she stayed in 2701 for quite a while. She was doing “The Little Foxes.”
WWD: Who would you say was the hotel’s most difficult guest?
M.O.: Willie Nelson. I had to give him a big tour before he chose a suite. He’s a man who’s very good if he gets what he wants.
WWD: Have you ever been starstruck?
M.O.: I had the pleasure one time of showing Judy Garland a suite. She came in at lunchtime and had sunglasses that covered her little face. She said, “I want something with a terrace if that’s at all possible.” So I showed her 1501, a two-bedroom suite with a nice terrace going out over Madison Avenue. She says, “This is it, thank you very much.” She was with her two girls [Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft]. In the meantime, I phoned the managing director and said, “Who the heck is this lady?” He said, “That’s Judy Garland.” My hands started to perspire.
WWD: Is there a particular moment you’ll remember from your time here?
M.O.: When I first came on the floor I was nervous. The prime minister of France was coming at the time. The next morning, I was hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone important. Who walks out of the elevator but president Truman. His daughter, Margaret, lived here for two years. So I took a deep breath and said, “Good morning Mr. President, how are you sir?” Meanwhile my palms are really perspiring. I said, “Have a good walk, Mr. President,” and that was it. You meet one, you get used to it.
WWD: You sound fairly jaded.
M.O.: My palms do not perspire anymore. Prince Charles was very nice and he was here with his new wife [Camilla Parker Bowles]. She was a very nice, very pleasant, beautiful person. Of course, not as pretty and as elegant as Princess Diana.
WWD: So, are you going to write a book?
M.O.: I have been asked to, but I tell people I’m not really interested. I did keep a list of princes, kings, people who have stayed here. But I don’t have any trash to throw in there.